The Performant: Books and beats

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Starting the New Year off right with Clown Foolery and Los Rakas

It’s a Friday night and the Booksmith is full of clowns. Seriously, it’s like a clown convention in here. Fully half the oddience are off-duty clowns, and the rest of us just kind of look like we should be. We’ve gathered together for the monthly clown jam/variety show Literary Clown Foolery, the first of the year, appropriately themed New Year’s Resolutions.

True, the free beer and cheese puffs at the door seem to run slightly counter to the kinds of resolutions that get a lot of attention around this time of year. But they are the perfect accompaniment to loosening up any natural inhibitions one might otherwise feel when seated within spitting distance of a whole passel of unpredictable clowns, so no one’s complaining.

“I like your glasses” a poker-faced clown in polka dots announces from the “stage” as she scans our expectant faces with her own unsmiling, bespectacled eyes. This is Gretchen (known outside of clown makeup as Tristan Cunningham), assistant to Dr. Schmidtt (Polina Smith), and she has a list of resolutions that reads in part like this: “get lucky, do the horizontal boogie, ride the bologna pony, have a hot meat injection...” You get the gist. Dr. Schmidtt, an expert in all things, decides to assist Gretchen by putting her on a diet of cookies and inviting an actual life coach (a charming Elaine Margarita Williams) onstage to help her set her goal. As Gretchen embarks on her quest to seduce someone, anyone, appearances by musical guests Mustard (Masha Matin) and Carl and Beatrice and juggling/belly-dancing interludes from Jon Deline of Pi Clowns using a series of silly monikers, punctuate the performance.

Scheduled for every second Friday, Literary Clown Foolery may be set inside a bookstore, but it’s way more lively than your average literary event, kind of a combination of vaudeville, sketch, and conference lecture, with books mainly serving as incidental backdrop. But since it certainly does inspire pre-and-post-show browsing, it appears to be a win for all concerned (except for Gretchen unfortunately, who overdoes the cookies and fails to find the bologna pony, or bookworm, of her dreams).

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Saturday at Slim's was bouncing with that special off-the-wall energy that all-ages shows seem to inspire, an excitability that contrasts refreshingly to the too-cool for school vibe you might encounter elsewhere. Squeezing in just in time for the last of Mission-born rapper A-1’s set, I recognize a couple of tracks from his latest mixtape “Thurl” including the Lana Del Rey-sampling “Now You Do” while the intriguingly shrouded Davin Gruesome shambles around the stage in his signature facemask and 49’ers gear like a revenant of home-grown rap.

But it’s Oakland-based Los Rakas that blow the stage up with a full band featuring at least three percussionists, keyboards, and electronic beats, while the two vocalists, Raka Rich and Raka Dun (Ricardo Giliam  and Abdull Dominguez) hold forth in spirited tandem. As cold as it is outside, the warm infusion of infectious Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Spanish-language flow, and powerful stage presence of the two Panama-American cousins heat things right up.

Taking their name from a Panamanian phrase “rakataka” (used roughly in the same way “ghetto” might be used here), Los Rakas preach the gospel of self-acceptance and pride, though they’re certainly not shy about including less weighted topics like ladies and weed smoking to their mix. They’ve been fortunate enough to share the stage with some pretty big names in the past, (including DJ Questlove, Ozomatli, Cypress Hill, Erykah Badu, and Manu Chao) and as headliners at Slim’s they appear comfortable with their role, filling the stage easily with their sometimes raunchy humor and energetic rapport. From all appearances, Los Rakas’ New Year looks off to a good start, and judging from the crowd’s enthusiastic response, so is ours.

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